John FitzGerald: Post-lockdown lessons from years after WWII

There was a spending splurge after 1945 as people purchased clothes and travelled

In 2015, I scanned my grandmother’s 3,000 photographs, which covered the period from around 1900 to 1950. They provided a fascinating picture of family and friends from the early 20th century. However, her photos for the early 1940s were largely boring: mainly black-and-white photos of flowers. From 1946 on, however, her albums were once again filled with photos of people.

Like my grandmother, over the last 50 years I have taken many photos of family and friends. However, during the pandemic my own photos have also become boring, at least to anyone else in the family. Like Gran in the war years, most of my recent photos are of flowers and trees – albeit now in colour. I now realise that Gran’s wartime photos reflected her being cut off from so many family at that time, finding solace in her garden instead.

The second World War saw an end to international travel, and even travel within the island became extremely difficult. Like so many other families, this cut my grandparents off from siblings in Canada, Brazil, the North and London. Without the benefit of Zoom, and knowing the serious risks that friends and relatives faced elsewhere, this was a particularly difficult separation. However, once the war ended in 1945, there was a rush to catch up with family, whether it involved taking the train to Belfast or the boat to or from Britain.

My grandparents were far from unique. As today, most families in Ireland had close friends or relatives living abroad who wanted to meet up after the war. The Central Bank report of 1947 referenced the exceptional number of visitors to Ireland in 1946, and their substantial expenditure here.

Catching up

When we are finally able to travel, there will be a similar surge in activity as families catch up with each other in Ireland or abroad. This traffic is likely to be symmetrical, with substantial numbers of children and grandchildren travelling to Ireland next year to see parents or grandparents as well as a large outward flow. While the focus of public policy debate is on the likely pick-up in holiday traffic to the sun, the “visiting relatives” traffic will also be substantial, and for anyone who hasn’t seen family members abroad for over a year, it’s much more urgent.

The disruption to travel in the second world war years had much wider consequences, affecting business travel and also travel for study. When it ended, the poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi headed to Paris to study, and the late Veronica Dunne headed to Rome to develop her singing. Today, the pandemic has also severely disrupted study and academic life. Here too, there is a pent-up demand to spread wings and rebuild physical contacts.

During the war years, serious rationing meant that, while people in Ireland could still eat reasonably well, they faced serious restrictions on buying coal, new clothes and consumer durables. From 1946 when the rationing eased, there was a consumer boom as people bought the things that they had missed out on over the previous six years. With minimal opportunities to replenish their wardrobes over the war years, there was an urgent need to replace worn-out garments, with “make do and mend” all but exhausted. Children who had grown out of the family’s hand-me-downs needed new clothes that fitted.

Housing market

A recent paper by Ronan Lyons and Richard Keely of TCD shows a significant share of the personal savings that built up during the war years flooded into the housing market in 1946-1947. Between 1945 and 1947, house prices rose by two-thirds and rents rose by one-third. This time around, Ireland has had the largest build-up of personal savings of any euro area country. As in the late 1940s, these savings could flood the housing market and drive up prices, the effect exacerbated by the shortfall in supply occasioned by the construction sector shutdowns over the last year.

Thankfully, the major disruption arising from the pandemic will probably be over later this year. If the wartime experience is anything to go by, there will be some pent-up demand to buy the things that people have missed out on during the successive lockdowns, and the experiences that online shopping could never supplant. However, while we may try and make up for some of the many missed pints or cups of coffee when the restrictions are eased, we won’t be able catch up on all that we missed as we once more reconnect in person with friends and family.